Your New Rules of Personal Branding

I had the incredible opportunity to interview, Sally Hogshead, the author of the #1 WSJ Best Seller of How the World Sees You. She generously offered tips on how to discover our natural strengths to captivate others at work and play.

Her unexpected insights on why some people succeed emerged from decades of advertising for the world’s most well-loved brands. If her career in advertising conjured images of Mad Men and ad-women smoking cigars and sipping whiskey, you were wrong.

Hogshead was knee deep in data from a study that had nearly half million participants when I spoke with her. She discovered a scientific approach to measuring how people perceive our communication and created a test for it called the “Fascination Advantage Assessment,” which pinpoints what makes us uniquely fascinating. Unlike other personality tests in the market, this assessment gives you an “outside-in perspective” through a lens of branding, not psychology.

Research shows that you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room to get noticed; shy or low-key personalities are just as compelling as charismatic ones. “Your personality is custom built to captivate audiences,” she says. The art lies in “not changing who you are, but becoming more of who you already are.”

Let the myth busting of personal branding commence.

Everybody likes you. That may get you fired.

“If you are not generating a negative response from somebody, you’re probably not very fascinating to anybody,” says Hogshead. Products that take a similar position in the market afford the expense of bombarding you “Wham! Wham! Wham!” with advertisements. They survive by winning the familiarity contest, which may drive consumers to reach for the merchandise but not to camp out outside stores to snag the good stuff.

The lesson for you is that you can take the I-am-your-vanilla — safe and familiar — stance only if you are already rich and famous, explained Ms. Hogshead. Otherwise, your skills must have a polarizing effect to safeguard against the perception that your offering is a commodity i.e. substitutable. “You may even lose your job to someone who is cheaper,” she warned.

When an opportunity presents itself, absent a cult-like obsession with you, your colleagues, friends and managers won’t go to the mattresses on your behalf. She urges you to be the love-it-or-hate-it Pistachio ice-cream instead. (To whom the essence of this green nut sounds tame, there is Viagra in a cone.) You get the idea: You need to build an evangelical following. But how?

The answer is not to spontaneously stage a gimmick for attention.

You have strengths. Great. But how are you different?

“My clients, Nike, Coke and Mini Cooper, didn’t get successful by highlighting their strengths. They focused on how they stood apart from other products in their category,” said Hogshead. In the same vein, “You are not hired because you are balanced but because you are extraordinary in some way,” she said. “Different is better than better.”

So, if you are applying for a coveted job or pitching for a project make a list of your weaknesses and also your strengths. But upgrade your preparation for the hunt: wrestle down your differences from the competition.

Suppose your strongest ingredients were the following: analytical, creative, and passionate. Now add to this concoction a degree in crunching numbers. These same assets can blend in various ratios to produce wildly different persona-cocktails:

  • Creative Changer: People seek you out when they need to be energized with surprising insights.
  • Perceptive Persuader: You persuade audiences with multilayered research findings.

It is your responsibility to unambiguously make the distinction that you are best served in an ambiance that craves for the former not latter. You can skip this exercise and instead pray for a lucky guess of your innate “highest and best use”.

I pushed back on how to differentiate in situations where you don’t know your competition, think: job interview or closed bids. Without a beat she declared, “100% yourself trumps 100% perfect!”

This is how you can beat commoditization, but you have another hurdle to cross before you earn the everlasting love you seek.

Elevator pitches are dead. Attention is gone in 9 seconds.

Average attention span is 9 seconds as per a study. You don’t have the duration of an entire elevator ride to deliver your quintessence.

You have a fleeting moment before your target is distracted by the next email, post, tweet, or retweet. Hogshead asserts that you are built to defeat these demons of distraction.

When you are calm and focused, you are in a state of “relaxed happiness,” the opposite of fear. From this semi-euphoric state, you communicate with confidence and clarity motivating an emotional echo from your listener. The secret lies in developing an astute awareness of what transports your brain, with your transfixed audience in tow, to this “zone of genius” as she calls it. She suggested a technique of self-diagnosis.

Try This:

For a few days, pay attention to the activities on your schedule and note your physical responses to them.

There will be times when you feel great, clear-minded, focused, and devoid of confusion or distraction. These are your “wellspring.” In these moments, your natural flairs were at play. It was effortless because you were yourself.

Other times, you will struggle to concentrate and be exhausted. In those spells, you were drudged in your “quick sand.” These were scenarios where you jostled with skills that don’t flow innately.

“It is your responsibility to focus on your wellsprings — on what you do best. You are the custodian of your talent,” Hogshead said. Developing a sharp understanding of what and who brings it out in you is empowering. Armed with this knowledge you recognize stated or unstated needs of clients and peers; not only can you meet these wants but you can over deliver, with ease.

“People can outdo your strengths. But nobody can outdo who you are.”

 Originally published at on September 11, 2014.

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